Words, Like the Wind…

I’m having trouble with something, but I don’t know what. It’s something I can’t seem to describe in words –nothing fits. I suppose I could be forgiven for dismissing it as nothing; there’s a word for everything isn’t there…? Everybody important gets a name –so does every place. I’m wondering about every feeling though, or every concept… Does everything like that get assigned a descriptor? A label?

For the longest time I assumed that everything that was too difficult to encapsulate in a word was either relegated to a category –the same flock, as it were- so that it could be described by a common theme, and whatever adjective or noun that seemed relevant for one, could be assigned to another by extrapolation; or the responsibility for describing its ineffability was delegated to metaphor. To poetry.

But as age slowly creeps across my neural circuits forcing me to neologate in order to deputize new sounds to stand in for those I’ve forgotten, I realize I’ve only had my hand in one pot. I’ve been drawing water from the same well all this time, and it makes me wonder what I’ve missed -or rather, what has missed me. Have I -limited as I have been by the cadre of words assigned to me, and bound by the metaphors my culture would understand- been restricted in what I feel as well? Would those evanescent emotions even be recognizable if they resisted condensation? If they were absorbed by some other, larger, but different entity?

It’s an interesting question, and one only partially addressed by a fascinating article in the BBC Future series: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170126-the-untranslatable-emotions-you-never-knew-you-had There are certain things that seem obvious when pointed out, but which might never occur to someone unaccustomed to viewing them that way. They are often fleeting, and if not captured as they occur, pass like the wind in a field of grain. Tim Lomas, from the University of East London, searched through the academic literature for ‘untranslatable’ words and his first compilation was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. ‘“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of.’

The words he found range from the more banal, such as the Tagalog Gigil: the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished’ to the profound –Wabi-sabi: a Japanese term that describes our appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty – such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom’ – a “dark, desolate sublimity”…

And then there is Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University. ‘Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

‘This is called “emotion granularity.” Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.’

But, for me at least, these observations are largely beside the point. Too reductive. Too pragmatic. Like embarking upon a study to find out where the geese actually go as you hear their honking disappear into an early morning mist, rather than being captivated by the magic of its occurrence. Captivated by the feeling. The moment. It’s why, I suppose, I was so enthralled by the concept of Wabi-sabi –it seems so… perfect! It’s not needing a scientific explanation for, say, a beautiful sunset, and being unentangled by an urge to describe it further, but rather, watching it wordlessly. Mindlessly…

Experiencing is mindless, I think. Listening to a symphony doesn’t necessitate describing it. It isn’t a purposive exercise requiring a justification, nor even an explanation. Much like the evanescent bewitchment of the cherry blossoms on a tree one morning, it just is… And yet, if there were a word that acknowledged the feelings it engendered, a way of expressing it, characterizing its effect on you to someone not present, and conveying the emotion, it might help to reify something that would otherwise disappear -a memory unshared and unsharable no matter the desire for acknowledgement. For someone else, it might never have existed, and in fact didn’t…

So does the inability to adequately encapsulate a moment in words –or in a word- either diminish its appreciability, or lessen its likelihood of being noticed? I suppose, without reverting to the linguistically oppugned Whorfianism (which suggests that language itself can influence thought), I would prefer to defer to the Bard himself and paraphrase his Juliet’s ‘What’s in a name?’ –a rose, even without a name, would smell as sweet.

Even so… a name is something sharable isn’t it? You would know it wasn’t a lilac I had smelled. You could partake of my experience, if only vicariously.

And sometimes, that’s enough. It’s something, at any rate…








Me, My Face, and I

You know, I’m getting a little worried about my face. I mean, it’s still there and everything –it’s just that I’m noticing stuff. Let’s face it (sorry), we see it every day in the mirror, so we kind of get used to it –the little bump beside the nose, the blotchy thing on the cheek… little asymmetries that we take for granted. They are us –or in this case, me. And from week to week, and month to month they stay the same –or maybe change so slowly that I inadvertently merge them into my still-evolving identity. I’ve always been given to believe that, absent catastrophic events, faces are like that.

And yes, hair changes –or goes away- so, although I like to keep a modicum of facial hair around for old time’s sake, I’ve taken to reducing the cheek-skin burden of late. I think it unduly tugs on already saggable features. Oh yeah, and mine, unlike its scalp brethren, has shifted colour for some reason and I’m not keen on flaunting the discrepant bicolourity.

But I’m not talking about hair –that’s an accessory; nor am I impugning blemishes. I see them as jewellery equivalents -facial earrings, if you like. No, I’m talking about the je ne sais quoi, if you know what I mean. It all started with my eyes, I think. First of all, it has always felt a little weird looking into my own eyes in a mirror, after all they’re reserved for others to drown in or whatever –like when I twinkle them. I used to practice winking in the mirror when I was a teenager, but found I couldn’t do it justice without blushing. I’m just not a winker, I guess. Also, I couldn’t seem to coordinate the movement to make it look unforced. Unepileptic. So I moved on to a compromise –twinking- which I decided was less blatant than an actual closure and yet more alluring. More mischievous. It was a look I felt would be more in keeping with my short stature, braces, and horn-rimmed glasses. It was an attitude rather than a seduction and, ultimately, eminently deniable. I got pretty good at it too. It’s best performed, I found through long tiring hours of practice, in profile –or at least it worked best in the mirror that way.

But lately I’ve found that my twinking powers are waning –although I will concede that so are the opportunities to use them. Twinking uses a lot of cheek and lip stuff and I wondered if its diminution might be symptomatic of a more global attrition, an end to my salad days, so I’ve been on the lookout. It’s not a thing one willingly concedes.

I decided, after much planning and soul searching, to subject my fears to scientific scrutiny. Of course, to detect discordant performance, one has to use firm guidelines, and creditably repeatable methods. Remember, there is a fairly universally accepted standard that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that the results –according to Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of Science- must allow the possibility of refutation (unlike ‘There is a God’, for example) to meet Scientific Scrutiny. Anyway, I devised a clever scheme that you could falsify over dinner if you were that type.

After much trial and error, I drew eyeholes on the bathroom mirror with (borrowed) lipstick, and a curve where my mouth should be. Then I bisected a line drawn between the eyes and dropped a perpendicular down to the mouth curve (I straightened it for purposes of mensuration), divided it into equal segments and voila, I could graph any changes. And yes, I maintained a standard distance of my nose to the mirror surface with a tape measure I kept on the sink. Of course I had to be careful not to smudge things with stray aliquots of toothpaste in the mornings when I am still tired, but I soon solved that by brushing with my mouth closed. I love the challenge of overcoming collateral damage; I think I would have made a fine politician, although perhaps a less than satisfactory marriage partner.

Over time, of course I mathematicised the criteria, substituting eye-circles drawn with lipstick, to geometric points on a matrix superimposed on the mirror surface and drawn with a fine-pointed indelible ink pen. My early lipstick-driven measurements I incorporated into a testable general hypothesis that I was later able to try to validate on the far more reliable mirror grid.

So what am I worried about, exactly? Well, I haven’t yet analysed all of the data points and the study is still ongoing for now, but preliminary data so far would seem to suggest that my nose is moving – at least with respect to several otherwise reliable landmarks. And of course, not wanting to draw undue attention to my face until I was sure, I have told no one.

At first, I attributed the anomaly to the difficulty of maintaining a ‘straight face’ –especially in the morning when I first wake up. It is incredibly difficult not to laugh at the lines on the mirror when all I want to do is find where to put the toothbrush. And anyway a crack-of-dawn face does not appreciate any additional lines. It is already attempting to deal with an existentially taxing Umwelt; it seeks the visual solace of lies –not lines.

But those trivia aside, the nose migration set me in mind of the constant play of evolutionary pressures –those that, for example, beset penguins to sacrifice their wings to create rudders. I began to wake up at three A.M frantically searching for my nose among the sheets, after terrifying dreams of Roswell. Fortunately, so far, even in the dark I have been able to find it back on my face when I am more awake.

I am beginning to see the mirror as the problem. It makes me wonder how scientists are able to deal with uncomfortable truths, things that make them question the validity of their data, that question the very Zeitgeist in which they were raised. It is no small matter to upset a prevailing paradigm; you have to be sure. You have to let the results be known and replicated to be confident it was not just a methodological aberration. A one-off.

I, however, have decided to bury the results; to soldier on with the unnerving suspicion I have discovered something that has been hitherto overlooked. After all, familiarity makes the eyes grow accustomed; inconsistencies repeated often enough become shrug-worthy. Unnoticed. Unstudied, perhaps until a new generation, untethered from the shibboleths of their parents, embark upon an uncharted journey of their own.

I haven’t mentioned it to my kids yet, though. Just in case…


Not so much Brain as Earwax

Ever wonder about intelligence? No, not your own –leave that to other people to figure out. But about what actually constitutes intelligence apart from the ability –or not- to solve the NY Times Sunday cross word puzzle before the next one arrives. Perhaps it is a comment on my own particular neuronal configuration, or an admission that, like St. Augustine’s view about Time, I only know what intelligence is if not asked about it. I like to believe that it is a perplexing issue, however, and that I could be excused if I never did quite satisfactorily pin it down. But I have come to see it as a quest, nonetheless.

I think I can remember how it all started. I was having a discussion –or, come to think of it, an argument– with an omniscient city friend, a reporter for a community newsletter, who I should never have invited over to see my rural property for her feature article. With all the authority of an urban transit official, she pontificated on the growing need for vegans in an eco-destructive world.

I wasn’t quite sure of the exact parameters of veganhood, but I gathered from her tightly compressed face that it probably avoided anything that was able to move on its own steam. She also seemed unhappy with things that had a recurring need to eliminate waste gases that would turn the air into a giant greenhouse. When I pointed out that a diet of lentils and couscous chili would turn even the most pious vegetarian into a methane factory, she dismissed it with an eye roll. “You don’t know us, dear… And anyway, it’s not right to eat animals,” she added with a sudden softening of her expression as if she had just recited the Lord’s Prayer –the ultimate and unarguable coup de grâce.

I could understand that, but I felt it was incumbent on me to point out that predators had been doing it for… Well, for years.

“That’s different,” she said with a wave of a beringed finger. “They have to do it; we don’t.”

“But there must be a zillion cows out there already, Janice,” I said, trying to plead for them with my eyes. “What are we going to do with them all?”

Her expression immediately hardened again and she stared at me like an impatient teacher. “Attrition, of course. Companies do that instead of laying off workers –they just don’t replace the ones that are retiring.”

“So you just wait until there are bodies lying in the fields?” I wasn’t happy with that idea.

She thought about it for a moment. “No, of course not! We eat them until they’re all gone. I mean somebody’s already eating them anyway.”

“And wool?” I said, glancing out of the window at a few of my sheep wandering by au moment critique. “Are we all going to have to wear hemp or corn leaves?”

“You’re so naïve!” she hissed, and tried to amputate my face with a withering stare. “We can switch to synthetic fabrics.”

“You mean using non-renewable petroleum products?” I asked, trying desperately to remember if that’s how they were made.

She struck me with a glare so sharp it almost pinned me to the wall. “Cellulose!” she shouted.

I almost ducked as she flung the word at me with an atavistic ferocity. “Uhmm…”

“What do you think plants wear?” Her eyes were angry dinner plates.

I finally blinked. I wasn’t sure if she was serious.

Her face relaxed at the blink, and a smile tried unsuccessfully to muscle its way onto her lips. “I was merely being poetical,” she added, as if  it were a common urban metonym that she felt obliged to explain to a bumpkin. “Plants don’t really wear clothes, per se,” she admitted after an initial hesitation, while leaving some wiggle room with the ‘per se’ anaphora –unfair, really.

I think I missed a vital part of the main thrust of her argument, but I managed to parry it with what I hoped was an effective antithesis. “Plants don’t wear cellulose because they are cellulose. I, on the other hand, am protein which is complex, delicate, and in sure and certain need of external protection…” I added the ellipsis to indicate that I was still developing my rebuttal in case she jumped in with an effective counter-argument. Also in case I had committed a biological gaffe –proteins were never my strong suit.

She was silent for a moment, politely waiting to say something when I had finished. I couldn’t think of anything to add, however, so she sighed. “Okay, I suppose we could leave a few sheep around for their wool.” She looked at me, her face all pleased and wrinkly at the compromise.

“How about chickens?” I asked, hoping for another concession. “Just for their eggs, though,” I explained, so that she wouldn’t think I might actually want to eat the source. “I mean how many greenhouse gases can the average chicken produce, eh?” Actually, I wasn’t sure about that so I added the Canadian ‘eh’ to indicate that not all the evidence was in yet.

She crossed her arms tightly and I could hear her tapping her feet in frustration. “Like yours, for example? Honestly,” she said, shaking her head slowly in time with the taps. “We’ve got to stop somewhere!”

Wow –italics followed by an exclamation mark. She was really getting worked up. I was beginning to worry about her article. She had come out at my invitation to see how ecologically sensitive a farm could be. My six ewes seemed safe enough now, but my three-chicken flock was not, and without them, I might get audited by the tax people for claiming a deduction as a mixed farm. Mind you, I still had the apple tree… As it was, though, I was already scratching the barrel’s bottom, as it were. I needed to nip this in the bud; not too many people probably read her community newsletter, but I knew she often added a post on Facebook about it as well… And Governments hire people to read Facebook…

“I can tell this is all very important to you, Janice. And it is to me as well,” I added, laying my hand on her shoulder for effect. “We all have to do our part, however small, to help the ecosystem.”

She nodded her head enthusiastically, and a thin smile managed to crack the concrete of her lips.

“So, if I were to show you some eggs…?”

She looked surprised. “Eggs? I don’t understand.”

I pretended to roll my eyes. “Look, a good part of ecological stewardship is buying locally, right?” She nodded.

“And I’m local…”

Gradually, as awareness crept in, her eyes told me she understood. “And if we each take small steps as individuals…”

I smiled broadly and took her hand. “So how many eggs do you want to buy today, Janice?”

She cocked her head. “Buy…?” I don’t think she topped her class.

I nodded. “It’s the only way I can continue to offer this service to the community…”

“Okay,” she said and chuckled conspiratorially, as my meaning trickled in. “How about a dozen?”

I blinked. “Actually, how about three eggs? I’m thinking of expanding the business, though…”

I never did see that article, but I have noticed several unknown, long distance numbers on my call display that I’ve never followed up… They’d have left a message if it was important, wouldn’t they?